Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Scientific Method Vs. Superstition Vs. Myth Vs. Religion (Part 3)

Question: If I use the scientific method to decide what I believe in, then why do I object to other people's religious beliefs that are different from my own?

Answer: I don't. I don't care what other people believe about God or not-God or clouds in the sky or fish in the sea. Zeus? Neptune? The great flying spaghetti monster? Or nothing at all? Go for it. I don't care, by which I mean, I don't judge you for your beliefs.

As Jeff and I talked about hummingbirds' feet or lack thereof, we realized that a lot of  old-time beliefs and superstitions can be explained by the lack of that essential part of the scientific method: information. If you are missing essential information, your conclusions are bound to be incorrect.

So, you make a hypothesis, backed up by initial observations: because you don't see any feet on the  hummingbirds you see flying around, many meters away from you, and you never see them landing or perching on anything, and these hummingbirds are remarkably different from all the other birds you've been watching all your life, you draw an obvious conclusion: they must not have feet.

Or, let's say, one day a black cat crosses your path as you're walking down the street, and right after that you get run over by a horse-drawn cart. Obvious conclusion: black cats bring bad luck, whether you were so busy watching the cat that you weren't paying attention to the street traffic or not.

Or, let's say, you walk under a ladder which proceeds to fall on you. Obvious conclusion: walking under a ladder brings bad luck.

And so on. Pass these beliefs on to your kids, and, sure enough, they walk way out of their way to avoid black cats and ladders, and, miraculously, they remain safe. Case closed.

On the other hand, let's say you are wondering about some idea that had been passed down to you from generations before, wondering because you've made some observations that seem to contradict that idea. You use the scientific method.

For instance, what about the notion of spontaneous generation? Check out some notions related to this idea, thanks to Net Industries:
Spontaneous generation, also called abiogenesis, is the belief that some living things can arise suddenly, from inanimate matter, without the need for a living progenitor to give them life.

In the fourth century B.C., the Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle argued that abiogenesis is one of four means of reproduction, the others being budding (asexual), sexual reproduction without copulation, and sexual reproduction with copulation. Indeed, the Greek goddess Gea was said to be able to create life from stones.
(Oh, yeah, back to those pesky Greeks again! Where on earth did they get these ideas? They can't have been observing very carefully!)
But wait, the article goes on to note: 
Even Albertus Magnus (Albert the Great), the great German naturalist of the thirteenth century Middle Ages, believed in spontaneous generation, despite his extensive studies of the biology of plants and animals.
Through the centuries, the notion of spontaneous generation gave rise to a wide variety of exotic beliefs, such as that snakes could arise from horse hairs standing in stagnant water, mice from decomposing fodder, maggots from dead meat, and even mice from cheese and bread wrapped in rags and left in a corner. The appearance of maggots on decaying meat was especially strong evidence, for many people, that spontaneous generation did occur.
All right, I can see how maggots apparently magically appearing on rotten meat could make you think they spontaneously regenerate! But, again (I think), only if you're not really paying attention.

More, next time.

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